Top Ten [The 10 Best Films of 1988]

From the January 6, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

For me, the ten best movies of 1988 are the ones I would profit most from seeing again and the ones I’ve profited most from thinking about. Their value, in other words, lies not merely in the immediate pleasure they offered but also in their aftereffects — the way they set with me for weeks and months after I saw them, sometimes growing and ripening with time.

I tend to be wary of critics’ lists and awards that are unduly weighted toward recent films — particularly because it’s much harder to evaluate a movie at the time of its release than it is weeks, months, or even years later. Perhaps the key occupational hazard of film critics is the pressure to remain stuck in a continuous present, and to serve the whims of the marketplace by confusing what’s recent with what’s genuinely new. Measuring a given week’s offerings only against each other narrows the difference between criticism and advertising by basing everything on consumption — reducing the universe of films to the few releases that happen to be available for consumption at any given moment rather than reflection.

On the basis of my own reflection, it turns out that six of my favorite movies of 1988 opened in Chicago during the first half of the year; I saw a couple others either then or earlier, and the remaining two in July and September.… Read more »

Bravery in Hiding [on LUMIÈRE D'ÉTÉ and LE CIEL EST À VOUS]

Jean Grémillon remains one of the major French filmmakers whose films are most egregiously unavailable on DVD, especially when it comes to versions with English subtitles — although I’m delighted to report that Criterion’s Eclipse recently brought out three of his greatest ones, all made during the Occupation, including the two that are discussed here and Remorques. This article appeared in the October 25, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. -– J.R.

Lumière d’été **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Grémillon

Written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche

With Madeleine Renaud, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Robinson, Paul Bernard, Georges Marchal, and Marcel Lévesque.

Le ciel est à vous **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Grémillon

Written by Albert Valentin and Charles Spaak

With Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Jean Debucourt, Léonce Corne, Albert Rémy, and Robert le Fort.

A friend and colleague, critic and teacher Nicole Brenez, says that the best film criticism consists of films critiquing one another. This may sound a mite abstract, but two very different masterpieces by the great, neglected Jean Grémillon, Lumière d’été and Le ciel est à vous, seem to offer a concrete example of this, as a critique of Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love, which I wrote about last week.… Read more »

Poetry in Motion [THELMA & LOUISE]

From the June 7, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

THELMA & LOUISE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Callie Khouri

With Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, Timothy Carhart, and Lucinda Jenny.

I’m not quite sure precisely when Thelma & Louise kicks into high gear. Does it happen when Thelma (Geena Davis) holds up a convenience store, or much earlier, when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots a rapist (Timothy Carhart)? Does it happen when Thelma’s tyrannical husband (Christopher McDonald) steps on a pizza, or when Louise divests herself of her watch and jewelry in exchange for an old coot’s sun hat?

Whenever it happens, something starts to click, and the movie becomes mythical — mutates into a sort of classic before one’s eyes. This isn’t to say that it can thenceforth do no wrong; the flashback shots that punctuate the final credits are lamentable, a cheap attempt to add uplift to an ending that doesn’t need it. But the movie does take on a certain charmed existence, persuading one to forgive such lapses. After a rather slow beginning, this prosy film turns poetic; and when that happens, we’re no longer passive bystanders but active participants, along for the ride morally as well as physically.… Read more »

Temple of Dumb [INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 1989). — J.R.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE * (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Jeffrey Boam, George Lucas, and Menno Meyjes

With Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, River Phoenix, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody,

Julian Glover, and John Rhys-Davies.

Nazis are fun! Jesus is fun! Arthurian legends are fun! Third world countries are fun! Caves are fun! The Holy Grail is fun! Lots of snakes and rats and skeletons are fun! Chases are fun! Narrow escapes are fun! Explosions are fun! Indiana Jones is fun! Indiana Jones’s father is fun!

Put them all together and you get the third panel in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones triptych — more fun than a barrel of monkeys (or Nazis, chalices, snakes, rats, skeletons — whatever). Though Hitler, Jesus, women, the third world, and, by implication, most of the rest of civilization ultimately take a backseat to the uneasy yet affectionate relationship between a grown boy and his dad — and all those millions of people exterminated by the Nazis (for instance) don’t even warrant so much as a look-in — this is nothing new in the Lucas-Spielberg canon; it isn’t even anything new in movies.… Read more »

Abbas Kiarostami’s Five is finally available [Chicago Reader blog post, 12/29/06]

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 08:00 AM

Five-driftwood

Fans of Abbas Kiarostami who have been wondering when they’ll be able to see Five (2003) — his 74-minute, five- part experimental film without dialogue, all shot on the seashore while he was scripting Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold — should know that it’s recently come out in France on a well-produced DVD released by MK2 and  readily available from French Amazon for just under 28 Euros. [2014 note: It's now available on U.K. Amazon.] (Like other overseas DVDs, it’s playable on any multiregional DVD player, which includes a surprising number of stateside computers.) Apparently part of the reason for the long delay was Kiarostami’s slowness in producing a “making of” documentary, though what he’s finally come up with — his hour-long About Five, completed in  late 2005, available with English subtitles on the same DVD — is quite fascinating. Responding to pertinent questions put to him by English critic and programmer Geoff Andrew, he views his own work with a lot of refreshing as well as helpful candor.

Five-ducks

Five-moon

Much as the French DVD of The Wind Will Carry Us, also released by MK2 (and somewhat cheaper, even though it’s a two-disc set), includes a couple of mind-boggling Japanese documentaries (also with English subtitles) that have done much to enhance my appreciation of one of Kiarostami’s greatest films, his own account of his more modest Five is no less full of surprising revelations about the elaborate artifice that lurks behind most of his seeming causalness and off-handed methods as a filmmaker.

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The Theme

From the Chicago Reader (April 15, 1988). — J.R.

The Theme

It’s not too much of a surprise that this angry Soviet film by Gleb Panfilov won the Golden Bear prize at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival over Platoon. It’s a more courageous film, especially considering the restrictions in its own country, which help to explain why this 1979 film could only surface after glasnost; it’s also a more impressive piece of filmmaking. Its novellalike plot follows a trip to the country taken by a celebrated middle-aged playwright (Mikhail Ulyanov) who has recently come to feel contempt for the compromises and complacencies of his own career. He develops an interest in an attractive young tour guide (beautifully played by Panfilov’s wife, Inna Churikova), whose low opinion of his work helps to focus his own self-hatred. But this masochistic attraction is frustrated when he discovers that her heart belongs to a young unpublished Jewish poet who, unlike him, has risked his career for his work and who, reduced by the authorities to a job as a grave digger, is planning to emigrate. Panfilov’s narrative style (the hero’s acerbic offscreen narration effectively punctuating the action) and visual distinction (a memorable use of snowy landscapes creating a striking black-and-white effect to play off against the color) keep this powerfully acted drama watchable even when little is happening.… Read more »

Cannes Journal (1973)

Here’s my Cannes coverage for Film Comment‘s September-October issue in 1973, the fourth year I attended the festival. The two least known of the films I wrote about, Some Call It Loving and Quem é Beta?, are, unsurprisingly, the two for which it was hardest to find decent illustrations.

A couple of apologies: (1) In my haste to defend Some Call it Loving against Andrew Sarris’s and Molly Haskell’s scorn, I managed to forget or overlook the fact that one sequence, in a nightclub, does feature some nudity; and (2) I no longer find my curt dismissal of History Lessons at all persuasive — in particular my claim that it duplicates the style and/or methodology of Othon. — J.R.

Cannes Journal

Jonathan Rosenbaum

If TOUCH OF EVIL, as Paul Schrader has suggested, is film noir’s epitaph, jean Eustache’s LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN (THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE) may well turn out to be the last gasp and funeral oration of the Nouvelle Vague — the swan song of a genre/school that shatters its assumptions and reconstructs them into something else, and newer model that is sadder but wiser and tinged with more than trace of nostalgic depression. MCCABE AND MRS.… Read more »

Jean Eustache’s LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1974-75). — J.R.

“The day I stop suffering, I’ll have become someone else.” “There’s no such thing as chance.” “To speak with the words of others — that’s what I’d like. That’s what freedom must be.” From the Café aux Deux Magots to the adjacent Flore, from the streets and sidewalks of a grayish Paris to other people’s flats, for the better part of 219 minutes, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) continues to hold forth. “In May ’68 a whole café was crying. It was beautiful. A tear-gas bomb had exploded . . . a crack in reality opened up.” Charmingly, narcissistically, elaborately, endlessly: “I don’t do anything; I let time do it.” “Abortionists are the new Robin Hoods . . .the scalpel replaces the sword.” “The world will be saved by children, soldiers” (pregnant pause) “and fools.”

Much less talkative is his beloved Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten—a Bresson discovery back for another nonperformance), who forsakes him to get married, and Marie (Bernadette Lafont), the older woman he lives with, casually exploits, and is clothed and fed by. But a verbal match of sorts is offered by the doleful and doelike Veronika (Françoise Lebrun, in an extraordinary, glowing debut), a promiscuous nurse he picks up one afternoon.Read more »

In memoriam, Ingmar [Chicago Reader blog post, 8/7/07, with 109 comments]

Film In memoriam, Ingmar

Posted By on 08.07.07 at 01:09 PM

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In response to the recent death of Ingmar Bergman, the Chicago Cinema Forum has organized a Bergman marathon (Chicagoist termed it a “crash course in Bergman”) to be held at the Chopin Theatre this coming weekend. Included will be the local premiere (two screenings) of a recent three-part, three-hour documentary about Bergman made for Swedish TV and screenings of five major Bergman features: 16-millimeter prints of Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), and Persona (1966), and a DVD projection of the 188-minute version of Fanny and Alexander (1982), a Bergman miniseries that was the last thing he ever shot on film.

All five of the features will be introduced and discussed by local critics. I’ll be trying my hand at Sawdust and Tinsel, and the founder of Chicago Cinema Forum (and organizer of this event), Gabe Klinger, will do Fanny and Alexander; WBEZ producer Alison Cuddy will introduce The Seventh Seal, Time Out Chicago‘s Ben Kenigsberg will introduce Wild Strawberries, and National Louis University prof Robert Keser will introduce Persona. The social aspect of the Chicago Cinema Forum has been a central part of Klinger’s project from the beginning, and two hour-long receptions on Saturday and Sunday, offering a further chance to discuss Bergman, are also scheduled.

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For all of us who didn’t make it to Cannes… [Chicago Reader blog post, 6/4/07]

Film For all of us who didn’t make it to Cannes…

Posted By on 06.04.07 at 07:51 PM

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Go to French Amazon or FNAC, both of which charge 19.99 Euros plus postage, for a delightful DVD containing all 32 of the three-minute movies commissioned by Gilles Jacob, former director of the Cannes film festival, to precede many of the features at Cannes this year. The loose thematic hook is the darkness inside a movie theater, and the lineup of filmmakers is impressive: in alphabetical order (and please forgive me not including any links here—life is too short), Theo Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Bille August, Jane Campion (the only woman, alas), Youssef Chahine, Chen Kaige, Michael Cimino, David Cronenberg, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Manoel de Oliveira, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Aki Kaurismaki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrei Konchalovsky, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raul Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Tsai Ming-liang, Gus van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar-wai, and Zhang Yimou. (Incidentally, if you click on and enlarge the illustration here, all of these names become magically visible.) And there’s even a bonus: longer and/or alternate versions of the shorts by Cimino (one of the best, involving the filming of a volatile Cuban band, intercut with the lead singer watching the film of the band in the same theater), Gonzalez Inarritu, Hou (who offers us a black-and-white version of his elaborate period re-creation of the front of a large cinema), and Suleiman (who presents his alternately droll and sinister variations on gags by Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati).

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Holiday Jitters [Chicago Reader blog post, 12/1206]

From the Chicago Reader‘s blog, the Bleader. — J.R.

Holiday Jitters

Posted By on 12.12.06 at 03:06 PM

night-at-the-museum

Allied Advertising recently informed me that the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum is being previewed only to the daily press, not to weekly reviewers — which naturally raises the question of whether the company in question (Twentieth Century Fox) is deciding in advance that we weekly reviewers won’t like this release. Whether that’s the meaning of their strategy or not, it does show a kind of uncertainty that is much more general among the so-called majors. For instance, Warner Brothers has at this pointed shifted the Chicago opening date of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima several times, with the result that it’s bounced on and off my ten-best list according to whether it’s opening here in 2006 or 2007. New York and Los Angeles reviewers get to consider Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima as part of the same package; Chicago reviewers don’t.

I differ from some of my local colleagues in refusing to consider 2007 releases for my 2006 list just because many of the film companies persist in treating Chicago as a cow town in contrast to New York and Los Angeles — both of which will be premiering Letters from Iwo Jima this year. In fact, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association has just declared the film the best of 2006, confirming that this organization is far better at coordinated efforts and statements that mean something than the New York Film Critics Circle, who came up with the relatively boring United 93 and/or The Queen as its favorites.

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Mark Cousins’ Excellent Adventure

From Film Comment (January-February 2013), with a few cuts made to this piece restored and the spelling of *Corpus Callosum (which Film Comment is determined never to get right, or even to acknowledge its former misspellings) corrected. I’ve retained their title, however, which is better than mine (“Mark Cousins’ Friendly and Innocent Odyssey”). — J.R.

 

 

 

 

“Much of what we assume about movies is off the mark.

It’s time to redraw the map of movie history that we have

in our heads. It’s factually inaccurate and racist by omission.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey can be an exciting,

unpredictable one. Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be

a bumpy ride.”

 

 

Delivered offscreen in Mark Cousins’ lilting Irish accent, this hefty promise and warning — only eight minutes into his lively, watchable, eight-part, fifteen-hour series — carries an undeniable thrill, even after one factors in the nod at the end to All About Eve, which suggests that some of the bumps along the way may be familiar and even predictable glitches. I haven’t read the book by Cousins (The Story of Film: A Worldwide History), written in 2002-2003, that served as his starting point and has already become an exorbitant collectors’ item on the Internet.Read more »

The Power of Belief

This appeared in the April 6, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. Although my favorite Cecil B. De Mille film is the talkie version of Dynamite (1929) — I still haven’t seen the silent version, released around the same time — The Ten Commandments (1956) is probably the film of his that I’m most familiar with, along with the somewhat underrated Samson and Delilah (1949).

Dynamite

Part of what’s so remarkable about the scandalously underrated and neglected Dynamite [see still, above] is how real and serious it contrives to make the marital pairing of a coal miner (Charles Bickford) and a spoiled city heiress (Kay Johnson), even though brought about through preposterous plot contrivances, and how, in spite of De Mille’s conservative social and political biases, it assigns equal amounts of dignity and vulnerability to both classes. It’s also one of the most suspenseful and charged melodramas to have ever come out of Hollywood. — J.R.

 

The Power of Belief

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Cecil B. De Mille

Written by Aeneas Mackenzie, Jessie L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank

With Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, and Vincent Price.Read more »

Waters in the Mainstream

This is a review of the John Waters original (1988) — not the Adam Shankman remake (2007) derived from the Broadway musical, which I haven’t seen. Thanks to the seeming omnipresence of the latter, I found it very difficult to find any stills from the former on the Internet. My review appeared in the March 4, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. Today I persist in thinking that America would be a better place if John Waters were hosting The Tonight Show. — J.R.

HAIRSPRAY

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by John Waters

With Ricki Lake, Divine, Leslie Ann Powers, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ruth Brown, Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, and Shawn Thompson.

As John Waters is the first to point out, Hairspray is “a satire of the two most dreaded film genres today — the ‘teen flick’ and the ‘message movie.’” But one of the nicest things about this exhilarating, good-natured pop comedy is that it actually is both a teen flick and a message movie. Satirical or not, it redeems as well as revitalizes both genres while celebrating their excesses.

This downscale, urban Dirty Dancing is a cunning crossover maneuver that opens as many doors to the mainstream audience as Waters can reach for, urging black and white, fat and skinny, blue collar and white collar, and generations some 25 years apart to join in the festive euphoria.… Read more »

Cinematic Obsessions [THE GANG OF FOUR and SANTA SANGRE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 22, 1990). — J.R.

THE GANG OF FOUR

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent

With Bulle Ogier, Benoit Regent, Laurence Cote, Fejria Deliba, Bernadette Giraud, Ines de Medeiros, and Nathalie Richard.

SANTA SANGRE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Written by Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento

With Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky, and Faviola Elenka Tapia.

In nearly half his films, 6 features out of 13, Jacques Rivette allows his characters only two possibilities. One is work in the theater, specifically rehearsals — an all-enveloping, all-consuming activity that essentially structures one’s life and assumes many of the characteristics of a religious order. The other, more treacherous possibility is involvement in a real or imagined conspiracy outside the theater — a plot or (the French term is more evocative) complot that is hard to detect yet seemingly omnipresent, sinister yet seductive for anyone who strays from the straight and narrow path offered by the rehearsals. Art versus life? Not exactly; a bit more like two kinds of art, or two kinds of life.

Both possibilities convey a sense of forging a fragile meaning over a gaping void.… Read more »